chiaroscuro, clear and obscure
Many people are aware of the term “chiaroscuro,” a word often used in art history books to describe the works of baroque artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt. In the academic setting of my university, I was told that the term simply translated as “light and dark.” That simple.
If I often digress into etymology, it is because I actually find that words hold the keys to abstract concepts. Painting is a visual language. But for English speakers, when our understanding of verbal language, such as the word chiaroscuro, is applied to the visual language of painting, the verbal language can occasionally be the round peg which is crammed into the square hole of the visual language of painting. When I moved to Italy, I soon discovered that chiaroscuro does not mean light and dark. Okay, to say that chiaroscuro means light and dark is technically correct, but it is also grossly incorrect. Chiaro, in Italian, literally means “clear.” Yes, light happens to bring clarity, but chiaro implies that which is within our sensory limits to perceive. Scuro implies not simple darkness, but mystery. You can talk at length with an Italian about this word, oscuro, and you will learn that it can imply all sorts of things: what is incomprehendable in that it is beyond the impasse of human knowledge, what is unfathomable in that it is outside of the ability of the human mind to understand, what is imperceivable in that it is not detected by the five human senses. And so, chiaroscuro has much more metaphorical power than I previously had known.
How does this delving into the meaning of “chiaroscuro” apply to painting? Well, it applies to life. What exactly do you know, in your world? How well do you know yourself? How well do you understand your current emotional state? Do you know others? Even those closest to you? Do you entirely grasp the spiritual implications of your religion? Do you understand the workings of the natural world around you? How do your relationships with other people work? Baroque artists would simply shed light and bring forth details on that which they understood, and cloak in mystery that which they did not fully understand. Chiaroscuro can simply be a style of painting which emphasizes certain elements, and diminishes the importance of other objects by shrouding them in mystery. Chiaroscuro was a type of metaphor for the best Baroque painters, such as Velazquez.
I often ask my students, as my teachers asked me: “Why are you painting so much detail in the shadows? When you step back, can you actually make out the details of that portrait model’s eye, or is it lost in shadow?… Can you see the specks on the side of that apple in darkness, or is it the case that when you step back, you can really only see that which is in the light?” Look at the shadows, not into them, and you’ll make better paintings. An artist friend once asked me how I had done a painting of a certain person, and I simply said “I just was thinking that everything is dark until light hits it. And, the light didn’t quite reach all the areas of the figure. That’s where things are still dark.” It sounds painfully simple, but that really is painting to me.
If I were to write a book on painting, I would write it on this: the clear and the obscure. I didn’t write a book though, I just painted the portrait of myself at the top of this page- I painted what I knew about myself, and left in obscurity that which I didn’t understand about myself. What we understand in life, and what we don’t.
Look at this painting by Caravaggio, look at how honestly human it is, and think about his language of chiaroscuro. Look at his statement on the omniscience of Christ, and the limited understanding of the world. Look at how Caravaggio orchestrates that which is clear and that which is obscured. See how he metaphorically conveys truth cutting through ignorance by the placement of Christ’s hand. The hand is parallel to the beam of light which cuts across the wall and strikes Matthew’s face.
Look at this next painting by a contemporary artist, Ramiro. He is an artist from Venezuela, trained in Florence. His work is stunning. He is one of my favorite artists, because he understands the metaphor of chiaroscuro. There is so much meaning in the fact that his eye sockets are in deep shadow, and that he has barely painted his eyes.